Page last updated at 12:42 GMT, Sunday, 26 April 2009 13:42 UK

Getting fit and healthy on the job

By Catherine Marston
BBC News, Merseyside

Unilever canteen
Unilever's canteen makes it difficult for employees to eat unheathily

It is 0800 in the Unilever company canteen at Port Sunlight, Merseyside and hungry workers flood in, queuing for breakfast.

On the hot plate are tempting sausages, beans and bacon.

They are grilled or baked, certainly not fried.

Right next to them are huge signs displaying the content of each item and broken down into calories, fat, salt and sugar.

In the chilled cabinet, there's a choice of fresh fruit, yoghurts, and cereal.

It would be difficult for employees here to choose something unhealthy.

And that is the intention.

Unilever, the food, home and personal care manufacturer, has just begun a year-long workplace pilot scheme to try to improve the fitness and wellbeing of all its employees.

Fit Business, as it's called, will target 2,000 staff at Leatherhead, Surrey and Port Sunlight.

The idea is to provide a holistic approach to health, with free access to onsite gyms, nutrition advice and health checks on the production lines.

Even some of the most cynical members of staff have signed up.

'All junk food'

Michael Smith opts for scrambled egg, tomatoes and wholemeal toast, "there is less sugar and fat in that" he explains.

Mr Smith gets his health checked
Now I know exactly and it's much better for me.
Michael Smith, Unilever employee

At 55 and suffering from diabetes, Mr Smith has been forced to look at his lifestyle.

Being single, he eats almost all his food at work and admits his diet used to be terrible.

"Before it was all junk food. Basically I'd eat a lot of terrible food and it does show up. I was far too overweight."

Mr Smith signed up for the pilot, and had tests done at work to record his fitness levels.

His blood pressure, height and weight were measured and it was enough to give him an incentive to lose weight.

He finds the information in the canteen invaluable.

"When I was at home and doing my own cooking I knew what was going into what I ate. But coming into work I was only guessing as to what I was eating. Now I know exactly and it's much better for me."

Health checks

On the production line, 21-year-old Sean McInnon has always been into fitness and health.

sign
If people are fitter and healthier they are more likely to be engaged at work and less likely to take time off
Breckon Jones, Unilever health and vitality manager

He was keen to get involved with Fit Business and encouraged others to get checked out.

At the side of the production line, right on the shop floor, the occupational health teams offer health checks and lifestyle advice.

The detailed records will be used to assess how successful the pilot is over the coming year.

Mr McInnon says he believes when he feels fit and well, it shows in the standards of his work.

"I find I'm in a better mindset the healthier I am, and you can concentrate better too."

Alongside the nutrition advice, health checks and tests, staff are also being given free access to onsite gyms and lunchtime talks on wellbeing.

Some will be trying out a system called Mi-Life, which involves wearing a wristband which can connect with a computer and monitors exercise and progress.

New approach

Breckon Jones is the employee health and vitality manager responsible for the wellbeing of Unilever workers and is pioneering this new approach.

Carl Malcolm
Carl Malcolm says the new scheme is a good incentive to get fit

He says the idea is to improve life for all staff, and not just at work.

"They're not unhealthy but there are certainly people who are less healthy than others."

"Whenever you take a big chunk of the population you are always going to find a percentage of people who require more time and energy to get healthy."

He denies it is about trying to get more out of the workforce.

"We do this because it's the right thing to do," he explains.

"If people are fitter and healthier they are more likely to be engaged at work and less likely to take time off. But that's not why we are doing this."

Fresh incentive

Carl Malcolm sits in an office all day, working for Unilever's pensions department based in Leatherhead.

Never exercising, eating a poor diet and plenty of junk food, Carl has not really taken much care of his health.

But as his 50th birthday fast approaches he's seen the scheme as an incentive to turn his life around.

"I'm coming up to 50 and it's certainly made me acutely aware I need to do something to make me healthier," Mr Malcolm says.

The scheme made him take notice of his health and take action.

"I have a bowl of porridge in the morning with some honey, fruit for a mid morning snack, a light lunch and more fruit in the afternoon. This is an opportunity to do something to get fitter."

The Institute for Public Policy Research will monitor the progress of this pilot and will assess how successful it is at the end of the year.

If there is a marked improvement in health and fitness of staff, Unilever will offer the scheme to all its 7,500 staff across the UK.



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